A year ago, Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall asked Seiwert, who has been making dances full time since 2008, and is choreographer-in-residence of the Smuin Ballet in San Francisco, for a proposal for a ballet that would be unique to Atlanta. Seiwert was surprised — she’d never visited the city.
Seiwert reached out to Joseph, whom she’d worked with before. Joseph, a Morehouse College alum, had brought his compelling form of verse-based dance theater to the National Black Arts Festival in recent years and was eager to strengthen his Atlanta ties.
Joseph connected Seiwert to Roumain, known for blending of classical music, jazz, hip-hop and funk. Somewhere between collaborating with Lady Gaga and teaching the 80-piece Berklee College of Music Contemporary Symphony Orchestra to improvise, Roumain wrote the ballet’s score, which he’ll perform with the Atlanta Ballet and Joseph this weekend.
The three artists convened recently in a studio at the Michael C. Carlos Dance Centre to rehearse with Atlanta Ballet’s dancers. Seiwert looked relaxed from her self-described “bunhead” days, 19 years as a professional ballet dancer, though she was no less focused.
With a direct, flowing and buoyant voice, she worked out details, matching dance beats with the poetry’s syllables and phrasing.
Joseph’s charismatic vocals merged with Seiwert’s intensely kinetic style. Roumain, no less magnetic, played off the dancers’ movement, improvising bursts of rhythm on his violin.
After rehearsal, Seiwert called this collaboration one of the most thrilling moments in her career. “I’ve never been so far out of my comfort zone.” Joseph’s poetry, she said “pushed me in fantastic directions.”
“Red Clay” recalls Joseph’s experience as a boy raised in Queens, who attended private school on New York’s Upper East Side and performed on Broadway, then chose to attend Morehouse for an education rooted in the African-American tradition.
His seven poems —or chapters — mine Atlanta’s history and culture – from the Atlanta Braves to Southern belles — along with pop culture references such as Harry Potter and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” in the mix.
Seiwert received Joseph’s libretto while she was in the former East Berlin. She explored the city’s bombed and partly reconstructed buildings, where artists who squatted years ago have formed thriving communities. “All I could think about was Atlanta, [a] city that was burned to the ground in a war and completely rebuilt. How could something beautiful grow out of being a scar?”
Joseph’s poetry challenged Seiwert to bring a storytelling dimension to her work, usually abstract ballets set to music. She had to study baseball, and as a tomboy, had to learn about Southern graces.
Seiwert said the toughest challenge was Joseph’s poem, “Atlanta Child,” which deals with the 1979-81 serial murders of 23 black children .
Seiwert recalled the day she choreographed this section. She walked into the studio, terrified. She shared the history and Joseph’s poem with the dancers, then said: “I have no idea how I’m going to do this. So, let’s go. Let’s figure it out.”
“It forced me to be courageous and not back down and not play anything safe [or] fall back on anything I’ve ever done before,” Seiwert said. Her aim was to “put something out there that hopefully resonates, but is respectful. Just hitting the right tone with that, I still don’t know if I did, but man, I do think that what we did was great.”
The final section, “Phoenix” comes alive with a sense of hope, optimism and rebirth, Seiwert explained.
“It doesn’t deny that bad things happen. That’s something that we go through, and we get through, but we get through it together.”
Cynthia Bond Perry is dance critic at ArtsCriticATL.com.